The NBN: our generation’s flagship utility project – Part I

Our ancestors witnessed the installation of electricity networks, our grandparents saw thousands of kilometres of rail laid to connect cities with remote regions, now we’re about to witness the rollout of broadband Internet nationwide. It’s an incredible time to be alive.

Broadband Internet will provide Australia with an unparalleled opportunity to be at the forefront of innovation on a global scale; not to mention the numerous benefits to business, healthcare, education, research and other sectors.

What exactly is the NBN?

When people speak of the National Broadband Network (NBN), they are referring to a project run by the Federal Government to rollout high speed broadband and telephone services directly to residential and business premises (or street corners, depending on the implementation approach.)

Since Australia is a vast land mass, the network will consist of 3 delivery technologies: fibre optic cable, fixed wireless and satellite. As a customer, the delivery technology used to access the NBN will depend on location.

The two major political parties differ mostly on implementation specifics. Considering this is the largest Government-funded project our country has ever seen, you could imagine there’d be competing viewpoints on how to best make this happen.

Without delving into the politics in this essay, I wanted to outline some of the incredible benefits we could see as a result of the NBN and why this infrastructure project matters so much for Australia.

The benefits

Senator Kim Carr described some of the key benefits in his book, A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor.

“The NBN will be enormously valuable for Australian businesses, regardless of their size or sector. It will make whole new industries possible … It will open opportunities for education at all levels, whether it is primary students connecting via video link with schools overseas, secondary students studying languages, or tertiary staff and students undertaking high-level research. It will vastly improve the delivery of health services, especially to those in remote areas and those otherwise disadvantaged by distance and lack of transport, including in outer urban areas. It can be used to provide legal assistance, English tuition for migrants, and a range of other services that boost productivity.”

While I agree these are certainly some of the more important foreseeable benefits, it’s those unanticipated, unforeseen nuggets-of-gold type innovations which will be most transformational and beneficial to us as a nation.

The World Wide Web itself is an example of an unforeseen nugget of gold borne out of the Internet (the web’s underlying infrastructure.) Without it, there’d be no eBay, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter — among millions of other web services. The likes of electronic commerce and social networking would have never seen the light of day.

App Stores and third-party apps are other examples of unforeseen nuggets of gold borne out of modern smartphones and advances in mobile operating system software. Prior to 2007, device manufacturers would ship their handset with minimal software (if any.) With the advent of the App Store, an entirely new economy and distribution channel was conceived. Independent developers could efficiently distribute their apps to anyone, anywhere in the world and make money.

Why it’s important

No-one can deny the global economy is changing rapidly. Many of the largest industries and markets in the world are evolving quicker than anyone ever imagined (think automobiles, publishing and music.)

Not only do businesses need to swiftly adapt, so too do nations.

We need to equip our children with the best possible education and facilities to make it so. We need to supply our organisations with the means to reinvent any aspect of their business efficiently, trial it with their target market and successfully launch. We need to attract foreign investors and talent to the country to inject the necessary financial and creative capital required for building new opportunities.

This is only possible if we have the right infrastructure in place to build upon. I’m optimistic and looking forward to the innovations we’ll see in the coming decades from this country.